When Was Iceland Settled?

The westernmost European nation, Iceland, was also one of the last to become a permanent settlement.

Its far northern location, the separation from mainland Europe by sea, and challenging environmental conditions discouraged settlement on the island for centuries.

Iceland was settled sometime between the late 9th and early 10th century CE by Vikings.

Multiple text sources, language analyses, and radiometric dating confirm this fact. As a result, Norse culture continues to be a dominant influence on Iceland today. 

This article discusses the permanent settlement of Iceland by the Norse pirates.

The discussion explains the importance of Iceland for Norse expansion when it was settled, and the country’s crucial role in preserving Norse culture till the present day.

Also, see How Many Volcanoes Does Iceland Have? to learn more.

The Earliest Documented Settlements in Iceland

The Norse were among the last pagan civilizations alive in Europe.

Owing to their limited resources, they had to expand beyond their capital in their Scandinavian homelands, and many of the Norse turned to piracy between the 9th and 11th centuries CE.

These pirates were infamously known as Vikings. 

The Vikings traveled far and wide, using their skills in guerrilla warfare, shipbuilding, and navigation to strike terror into the hearts of other nations.

Before they converted to Christianity and gave up seafaring, they established colonies and trade routes in many places. One of these colonies is present-day Iceland.

The Norse first discovered Iceland in the mid-9th century.

By this time, they had already established bases in the British Isles. In a pattern that would recur for years, they used these bases to expand further westward.

Textual sources mention many of the early Norse explorers by name.

The first Viking to arrive in Iceland was a Norwegian named Naddoddur, who named the island “Snæland,” meaning “Snowland.” [1]

Finding the land uninhabited and inhospitable, Naddoddur returned home.

Later, Gardar Svavarsson, a Viking from the country now called Sweden, made the same journey.

Svavarsson sailed around the new territory and discovered that it was an island.

He sailed back home but left behind a slave from his expedition by the name of Náttfari, who was potentially the first Icelandic settler.

Later still, another Norwegian named Flóki Vilgerðarson arrived with a larger group.

They stayed in Iceland for three years, but Vilgerðarson’s expedition returned home as well.

However, before doing so, he christened his temporary home, calling it Iceland—a name that would stick till today.

Finally, in 874 CE, the man now widely considered the first settler of Iceland—a Norwegian named Ingólfr Arnarson—and his wife, Hallveig Fródadóttir, established a settlement at the site of the current capital of Iceland, Reykjavik. [2] 

Arnarson and Fródadóttir were joined by over 400 settlers from Norway and the Norse colonies in the British Isles.

Together they laid the ground for the permanent settlement of Iceland, and their legacy continues to influence the culture of the island nation even today.

Evidence Confirming the Norse Settlement of Iceland

Textual sources that describe the colonization of Iceland include the 12th-century works Íslendingabók (meaning The Book of the Icelanders) and Landnámabók (or The Book of Settlements).

The Íslendingabók establishes the settlement era as sometime between 870 and 930 CE, and the Landnámabók places Arnarson’s arrival at 874 CE.

Since medieval texts are not always reliable sources of information, these claims have been tested using other methods.

Both radiometric dating of ash deposits from the settlement era and analysis of the Icelandic language confirm the claims made in these texts.

Explorers of Iceland Before the Norse

While the Norse are considered the earliest settlers of the island, Iceland has been spoken of since before their time.

Classicists believe the Greeks referred to it as Thule, and the Romans may have been aware of its existence through the Greeks.

It is believed that the Celtic monks paid regular visits to the island since the 7th and 8th centuries CE. [3]

The Landnámabók refers to the monks as Papar, and the Íslendingabók suggests that, unhappy to find themselves constantly surrounded by pagans, the Papar decided to leave the island. [4]

For nearly four centuries after they arrived, the Vikings continued to rule the small island.

Later, in the 13th century, they accepted Norwegian supremacy but were allowed to retain a degree of autonomy.

This freedom allowed Norse culture to retain its dominance over the life of the Icelandic people, an influence it continues to exert today.

How Iceland Enabled the Viking’s Westward Expansion 

The Viking Age was characterized by the rapid expansion of Norse people and their culture beyond their traditional Scandinavian homelands.

The Vikings established prominent colonies in England and France.

They even traveled as far as Constantinople in the East and America in the west, establishing trade routes and setting the stage for later explorers.

Iceland was an important stepping stone in the process of Viking expansion westward. It established a base for the discovery of Greenland, and later, North America.

Hostile natives, adverse economic conditions, and changing weather caused the Vikings to withdraw from America and Greenland. [5] [6]

However, they were not deterred by the harsh conditions in Iceland and managed to stay on.

The Importance of Iceland for the Preservation of Norse Culture

Besides hanging on as a lingering presence, the Norse settlement of Iceland had a profound effect on sustaining Norse culture in the country and beyond, long after the civilization ended.

Within a few centuries of the beginning of the Viking Age, many Vikings had already settled in new lands.

Here they took on the clothing, culture, and habits of their neighbors and many of them converted to Christianity.

The rapid changes meant it was only a matter of time before all traces of Norse culture vanished.

To make matters worse, the Norse tradition was a largely oral one.

Norse beliefs and folklore were transmitted from generation to generation in the form of spoken poems and songs, with barely any written records.

It was only in 12th and 13th century Iceland that Norse mythology was recorded and written down.

And without the knowledge possessed by the Icelandic people, we may have lost an entire civilization to history. 

But the Icelandic Sagas are not merely repositories of Norse memory.

They are also culturally significant and aesthetically pleasing literary works that are now recognized among the foremost texts of medieval European literature. 

This rich contribution of text is the main reason why Reykjavik was selected as one of the first UNESCO Cities of Literature. [7]

Manuscripts of key texts like the Poetic Edda can still be viewed in the city today. And Norse mythology continues to inspire contemporary readers and writers hundreds of years later.

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Christian Christensen

Christian started Scandinavia Facts to explore his family heritage, raise awareness of one of his academic interests as a professor, and civilly promote the region. Please see the About page for details.

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